A long time into the future, slowly: Emily Johnson’s “Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars”

Randall’s Island

When I’ve watched Emily Johnson’s works, there has always been some part of me that felt I didn’t know how to watch them. Things happen that I don’t expect, and other things that I expect to happen are absent. It’s less about surprise than incongruity: my ideas about what happens during a dance performance are not matched by Johnson’s dances.

I’m not unaccustomed to watching challenging dances, nor are Johnson’s dances particularly radical. They feature people moving, making music, telling stories. There are often costume, stage, or set elements that can be quite theatrical, and also some that are anti-theatrical — her previous work, SHORE, began in a schoolyard a few blocks from New York Live Arts when it was performed in New York. In the 2010s, neither of these choices (or their combination) are in themselves unusual. Within the sphere of downtown dance, Johnson’s work is, structurally speaking, easily recognizable as dance, and in some senses even conventional.

Yet even if the work was recognizable to me as dance, there were some aspects of the experience that didn’t cohere, though it’s never been easy to pin down what those aspects are. What elements of the performance are important to pay attention to? Which materials are being manipulated and which are incidental? What are the value systems in play? I always seemed to find myself a little uncertain. Essentially, my expectations about how I should watch a dance did not seem to be the right ones for this work.

I don’t expect to know how to watch every work I see, but my experience with Johnson’s works bring up questions for me about “context” for viewing work. By “context” I mean the frameworks we use to understand and process the experiences we encounter during a performance. I think information always needs a context, how every language needs a grammar — information without context is like a set of numbers with no corresponding key to tell us what those numbers refer to. And contexts are not universal or always known by everyone involved. Sometimes I think about the idea that an “artwork should speak for itself” or “be understood on its own terms,” i.e., without an explanation. It’s a provocative and potentially inspiring idea, but lately the only version of it I can really get on board with would be something along the lines of, “my intended audience already has the necessary context for this work,” thus not requiring any further context. But the context is still there — it’s just assumed.

Johnson’s recent works — the trilogy comprised of The Thank-you Bar, Niicugni, and SHORE — have engaged in processes that relied on a great deal of material that didn’t necessarily manifest in the performance proper. Some examples: in Johnson’s 2012 Niicugni, 51 handmade fishskin lanterns adorned the performance space, creating their own kind of installation, and a map of these lanterns was given along with the performance program. These lanterns were made in a number of workshops, led by Johnson, across the country and over a period of several months. Johnson described these workshops as vital to the performance itself, and noted that she was able to recognize each individual lantern and the person who made it. But at the same time, she said she didn’t feel it was important for the audience of the performance to know all of this information: “That story can be known and voiced, or be kept with the object. And either one is fine. The story is offered, but not forced.”

This idea seemed to go even further with SHORE (2014-2017). SHORE had four distinct parts: PERFORMANCE, COMMUNITY ACTION, STORY, and FEAST. These four parts were discrete events, happening on different days and in different locations, and were adapted to each unique location where SHORE was performed. Attendees of SHORE: PERFORMANCE didn’t need to attend all (or any) of the other events, and vice-versa. Johnson, in a conversation with Ain Gordon, who directed SHORE, said that as far as she was concerned, “If you come to the feast you’ve been to SHORE. If you watch a show you’ve also been to SHORE, and it’s not more important than if you came to the feast.”

These examples highlight some of the frameworks at play in Johnson’s work, which start to open up some of what I have found productively disorienting about Johnson’s dances. The way that each part of SHORE stood in for the whole in one sense displaces the primacy of “performance” with regard to dance; in another sense, it simply questions the distinction among these categories to begin with. When we spoke in early August, Johnson reflected on the assumption that these various activities she engages in are somehow different from dance proper: “When did we decide that feasting wasn’t part of dancing? That communities coming together to prepare and do work, and that dance actually does something — when did we decide that wasn’t the case anymore? Somewhere in this western world, we put these things in different places, and we built a relationship with dance as something we go see over there, and everything else is over here. And I don’t engage in that relationship with what I make.” Johnson does, it seems, conceive of dance differently than how one might encounter it more generally. While this attitude shares some similarity to notions of interdisciplinary art, the histories of the avant-garde don’t feel like the main reference for Johnson’s broad concept of dance. Her work doesn’t seem to start from the assumption that there are distinct disciplines that one can be between, that there are boundaries that need to be broken. The premise is simply different.

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In her previous works, the events that contributed to the process took place in physically separate spaces and during different times than the performance itself. The upcoming work, Then a Cunning Voice and A Night We Spend Gazing at Stars, to be performed this Saturday night on Randall’s Island, seems to be collapsing this to a degree. The night’s events will feature the activities, such as storytelling and feasting, that in previous works were dispersed across times and places, and include participatory elements, among which will be sewing: contributing to the 4000 square foot quilt that has been under construction for the past three years in several different countries. Whereas with SHORE, these activities occurred separate from the performance, this time, the performance is all of these things.

The idea of containing context within the performance itself reminds me of my experience of Ralph Lemon’s 2010 work How can you stay in the house all day and not go anywhere?. For the first 45 of the roughly 80-minute work, Lemon read a text, accompanied by a film. While the performance was notable for people leaving throughout the evening — Lemon noted, “It was the first work I’ve made with a conscious understanding of an audience where people are consistently walking out of the show” — I remember distinctly feeling that I received from the opening reading exactly the amount of context I needed to engage with what followed. In effect, Lemon provided the context the audience needed within the frame of performance, rather than asking them to read something beforehand, or have the knowledge some other way. It suggests a different intention toward the audience, a more explicitly generous one (see dramaturg Katherine Profeta’s discussion of generosity in regards to How can you stay…?).

This connects to what I see Johnson doing, though one important difference being that Johnson is asking her audience not simply to know something about the work, to be aware of the work’s context, but to take part in creating that context as well. The information for Then a Cunning Voice on PS122’s website gives the audience a list of things that they are expected to bring to the performance, as well as activities they will be expected to take part in, and attitudes they will be expected to acknowledge. The context for this work isn’t just about knowing how to see, but also how to act — and both are intended to be created through the performance.

Perhaps the most unexpected thing for me regarding Johnson’s work is how time operates. The final note on the list of audience protocols for the performance — things audience members acknowledge by attending this performance — reads: “There is no end to the work we begin here.” For Johnson, this indicates something specific: the work isn’t meant to be fully comprehended in the moment of performance. When I ask, in a general sense, what Johnson wants her work to do, her response involves a relationship to time: “I want to allow for the possibility of communication, and I want that to happen a long time into the future, slowly.” Johnson doesn’t expect that her work manifests its full potential during the moment of performance — just the opposite, in fact: “All this preparation, on our part, is to allow for that future communication. When we’re all gone, we’ve all left the island, we’re not around each other — that there can still be an exchange. That’s really what I’m interested in creating: that future exchange.”

I certainly find the performances that affect me most continue to do so long after the event itself. I continue to think about them, to feel what they bring up. However, I also expect these to be the residual effects of what was an immediately impactful experience; it doesn’t occur to me that a performance would not affect me in the moment, but then later grow into something that does.

Not expecting the audience to “get” the work during the performance seems, to me, to be a big leap of faith on Johnson’s part. Performers often talk about being able to feel the audience during a performance, the energetic response from the people in the space, as a means of feedback. From what Johnson describes, she is not relying on this kind of immediate feedback — she is kind of setting up the performance and sending it out to the world without asking for confirmation about how it is received. And as much as Johnson is taking a leap of faith, she is also asking for a significant amount of trust from her audience. She acknowledges that her expectations of time and effect might not be comfortable, but accepts this, noting, “neither is any process which is worth doing. You are moving towards something that you haven’t conceived of yet, something that you don’t know is possible yet.”

If I shouldn’t walk into her performance with the expectation that I leave it having understood what it was meant to do, what should I expect to experience? Getting the answer to that, I think, is the reason I come to see Johnson’s work. I still don’t think I know exactly how I should watch these works, but I’m also less concerned with figuring it out — I know I feel the effect of the work, even if I can’t define it. It makes sense to me in relation to how Johnson describes how she deals with this question of excess context, of her audience not knowing — not possibly being able to know — everything that went into making the work: “It makes me think of hosting. When you are a good host, you have prepared enough so that your guests don’t know everything that you’ve done. But the sense with which they are welcomed can open the space, can provide enough comfort that they can feel ready for whatever this is. That they can feel cared for — because then that can, hopefully, reciprocate care.”

Though I’m still wondering about this idea of not experiencing the full effect of a work during the performance — perhaps not until weeks later, even — I can now remember one time that I did experience exactly this: it was the first time I saw Johnson’s work.

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